The Shema: Left for last?

Why does the prayer appear so late in the Torah, and why is it considered our foundational statement of emunah?

Rabbi Avraham Gordimer ,

Rabbi Avraham Gordimer  
Rabbi Avraham Gordimer  
Rabbi Avraham Gordimer

Following the repetition of the Aseret Ha-Dibrot (Ten Commandments) and its aftermath, in the fourth and fifth aliyot of Parshat Va'etchanan, which we will read this coming Shabbat, the Torah presents the Shema ("Shema Yisrael" and "V'ahavta"), which commences the sixth aliyah.

It is incredibly perplexing that the Shema, which is the foundational statement of Yahadut, of Judaism, does not appear in the Torah until this point, well into the fifth and final book of the Torah! One would expect such an essential text to appear at the beginning of the Torah, or at least much earlier than at this very late point, in Sefer Devarim/Mishneh Torah (Moses’ review or restatement of the Torah), as we are near the end of B'nei Yisrael's (the Children of Israel’s) 40-year journey. Why is the Shema pretty much left for last?

Furthermore, the first two of the Aseret Ha-Dibrot, referred to as "Anochi" ("I am the Lord your God, who took you forth from Mitzrayim...") and "Lo yihyeh" ("There shall be no other gods..."), establish God’s Oneness and His unique relationship with B'nei Yisrael. As such, what is the Shema adding, such that we recite it twice daily, rather than reciting "Anochi" and "Lo yihyeh", which would appear to convey the same basic ideas as the Shema?

The Shema contains two quintessential concepts:

1. Hashem is our God, meaning that He has a special, close and exceptional relationship with the Jewish People;

2. Hashem is One - the exclusive God and Master of the universe, such that there exists no other deity or competing power.

These two concepts are obviously featured earlier in the Torah, going all the way back to Bereshit (Genesis), as we read of Hashem's absolute creation, control and authority over existence, as well as His establishment of an intimate and unmatched permanent relationship with B'nei Yisrael, starting with Avrohom Avinu (Abraham, our father) and the selection of Yitzchak and Yaakov (Isaac and Jacob) over their brothers, and culminating with the Geulah (Redemption) from Mitzrayim (Egypt), Mattan (the Giving of the) Torah, the construction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle), and so forth, as depicted through the progression of the Torah narrative.

Please note that these two cardinal concepts of Achdut/Adnut Hashem - the Oneness and Mastery of God - and Bechirat Yisrael - our people being chosen for a special relationship with God - are presented in the Shema in the reverse order of their presentation in the Torah thus far; the Torah began with God’s Oneness and Mastery/Creation and then proceeded into the account of the cultivation and development of B'nei Yisrael as the Chosen People, close to God and privileged to experience His miracles and to receive His Torah. In the Shema, Bechirat Yisrael comes first, and is followed by Achdus/Adnus Hashem.

This change of sequence is key to the revolutionary significance of the Shema, why it appears so late in the Torah, and why it is our foundational statement of emunah.

Until this point in the Torah, at the culmination of the Midbar (Desert) experience, we observed that God is manifest in the world in two ways: through His general mastery over nature and the physical world, in the same vein as Avrohom Avinu came to realize that there must be One God, the Creator and Authority of the universe, Who fashioned the unfathomably systematic and intricate mechanisms of the cosmos and of all life - and also through God’s relationship with B'nei Yisrael, as expressed by Geulat Mitzrayim, Mattan Torah and so forth. One could see Hashem through nature and also through His interaction with the Jewish People.

In the Shema, everything is reversed. God is no longer the God of Creation, and later the God of a chosen people, B'nei Yisrael, but rather, Shema is trailblazing and extraordinarily novel, establishing the starting point of "Hashem Elokeinu" - "the Lord, our God, God of B'nei Yisrael" - and the endpoint of "Hashem Echad" - God's exclusive Oneness and authority over all, by dint of His being Hashem Elokeinu, God of the Jewish People. This means that that solely through B'nei Yisrael will Hashem's reign as God of the universe and all existence be manifest. (This is intimated by Rashi .) Hashem Elokeinu comes first in Shema, as it is the foundation of everything.

Such is the revolutionary message of Shema, which is quite a step beyond the basic and sequential notions of Achdut/Adnut Hashem and then Bechirat Yisrael.

How does the Shema concept operate, that Hashem's Oneness shall be manifest specifically and solely through B'nei Yisrael? Cannot one still look to the wonders of nature and realize their Exclusive Author and Creator?

The Shema is a futuristic, visionary message, affirming that through the Geulah Ha-Atidah, the Final Redemption, Moshiach (the Messiah) will emanate from B'nei Yisrael and lead them, establishing Hashem's earthly kingdom permanently, and the entire world will then come to recognize Hashem. It will not be a few individuals, who realize through the wondrous mechanisms and patterns of nature that there must be One God; rather, a dynamic, compelling and vivid message - the live and palpable experience of Hashem, at the time of the Geulah, with B'nei Yisrael at the front and center - will shake the world into a robust and animated acceptance of Hashem's authority, His presence and His truth.

This futuristic and revolutionary message of Shema was reserved for the final section of the Torah, in which the knowledge imparted thus far is now projected toward B'nei Yisrael's upcoming mission and ultimate destiny. Shema by definition could not be featured sooner.

Chazal tell us that Yaakov Avinu recited the Shema as Yosef (Joseph) embraced him in tears after 22 years of separation, and that Yaakov's sons recited the Shema at their father's deathbed, as he commenced his final words to them. The Shema manifests in these narratives and for eternity as a promise passed down to future generations about the faith destiny of our people. It is the message of our spiritual mission, and eventually - we pray soon - it will pertain to all mankind.

Rabbi Avraham Gordimer is Chairman of the Rabbinic Circle of the Coalition for Jewish Values," a public policy institute on the editorial board of Jewish Action magazine and a staff writer for the Cross-Currents website. He is a member of the RCA and NY Bar, and an account executive at a large Jewish organization based in Manhattan